God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
He was a chain smoker (Pall Malls), a drinker, and had an affair with one of his students. He drove two marriages into the ditch, and from the looks of his posthumously released Letters he struggled as a parent. He accidentally set his own house on fire, and during my one and only meeting with him he was one ornery son of a bitch.
All of which to say that author Kurt Vonnegut was simply a man who wrote books, but what amazing books they are.
The particulars of Vonnegut’s life are well known to his readers: Born into a well-off Indianapolis family in 1922, young Kurt worked for his high school daily newspaper, where he gained what he considered his most important writing education. After high school he majored in Chemistry at Cornell, but was also an editor of the Cornell Daily Sun.
World War II interrupted his college education. He was inducted into the Army and eventually shipped off to Germany, his ancestral homeland. There he was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Dresden, a city of no strategic value that nonetheless was firebombed by the Allies. Vonnegut survived the attack, which arguably was the single greatest influence on his work if not his character.
After the war, Vonnegut went back to school and worked as a reporter in Chicago before taking a job as a public relations man for General Electric. It was during that soul crushing job that he began sending his stories out to the “slicks,” the commercial magazines that paid handsomely for short stories.
The establishment had no interest in him. Vonnegut’s stories were labeled lowly sci-fi, not the kind of thing that gets reviewed in the New York Times. All of that changed when he published Slaughterhouse-Five at the not so tender age of 47. This was in 1969, during the next generation’s war, and young people flocked to Vonnegut’s tale. So it goes.
What’s most remarkable about Vonnegut is that his experiences made manifest a call for peace and humanity. These are the threads that wove their way through his considerable body of work, both as writer and lecturer. With exception to Mark Twain, no American writer has better delivered a message of kindness through humorous fiction. He remains an outstanding example of setting one’s own difficulties aside and getting the good work done.
Here are a few classic Vonnegut quotes. Some are from lectures, others from the mouths of his characters:
We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap.
There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too.
Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.
Thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.
A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.
photo Daniele Prati/Flickr